Bread pudding — that simple mixture of leftover bread or cake, eggs, milk and spices — may be one of the oldest desserts around, say food historians.
In medieval times, and possibly even earlier, frugal cooks figured out that soaking stale bread in milk or custard and baking it was an easy way to make dessert — and a good use for old bread. Then they discovered that adding a little fat, such as butter, or a handful of raisins, could transmute bread pudding into a special confection. Nowadays, cooks whip up a whiskey, rum or caramel sauce to spoon over the pudding, thus elevating the humble treat to a guest-worthy gourmet dish.
"Bread pudding is one of the truly universal dishes. Recipes, ingredients and method vary greatly according to place, period and taste. Whether economical leftover 'make-do' dish or grand expensive holiday presentation, bread pudding fits the bill," says Lynne Olver, editor of foodtimeline.org.
Puddings, and especially bread puddings, have been associated with the holidays since at least the 19th century. The presentation of a plum pudding is one of the highlights of the Crachit family's Christmas dinner in Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol. (See the recipe at the end of this article for "Poor Man's Bread Pudding" from The Carolina Housewife, first printed in 1847. But one of the ingredients, "stoned raisins," isn't what you might think. They're merely raisins without stones or pits.)
Jodi Rhoden, owner of Short Street Cakes in West Asheville, grew up eating her grandmother's bread pudding in Georgia and now bakes the dessert in her cake shop. Although she's making bread pudding to order for the holidays, she encourages folks to try baking their own, both for its simplicity and frugality (see her recipe below).
"I love sharing recipes. I always say the only thing better than a Short Street cake is a cake made by your mama," she says.
Rhoden adds that the smells of home baking are strongly associated with the holidays — and cooking special dishes for festive occasions is an important part of how we celebrate.
"That's one of the reasons we have warm and fuzzy feelings about the holidays," she says.
The day I dropped by for a taste, the Short Street kitchen was fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg from baking bread pudding, and yes, the scent transported me back to my grandmother's pre-holiday baking sprees.
Rhoden's bread pudding is a custard-style pudding, bound with eggs. She uses leftover carrot spice cake, although she stresses that you can use any leftover bread or cake, even birthday cake with icing. Although bread pudding is versatile and can support a variety of ingredients and spices, Rhoden emphasizes that nutmeg is indispensable.
"Nutmeg and eggs together are something magic," she says. She also offers what she says is her most important advice about cooking: "Something a little bit sweet in anything salty and something a little bit salty in anything sweet."
For example, she adds a teaspoon or two of sugar to pasta and never cooks anything sweet without salt — especially bread pudding.
Civil War-era soldiers would have been thrilled with Rhoden's protein-rich dessert. Back then, a rare treat for them involved pounding crackers into fine pieces, mixing them with water, raisins and a little sugar, if they had it, and boiling the "dessert" in their tin cups over the fire (from A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray).
Bread pudding's come a long way, baby.
Carrot Cake Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce
(courtesy of Short Street Cakes)
• 2 cups whole milk
• 1 cup heavy cream
• 2 tablespoons butter
• 5 eggs, beaten slightly
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• ¼ cup sugar
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 5 cups leftover cake cubes (Use leftover cupcakes, trimmings from making layer cakes, or stale pound cakes. Cut into 1-inch cubes. I use carrot spice cake).
• Cinnamon and nutmeg to taste
1. Scald milk and cream (bring to just below a boil in a heavy saucepan until a skin forms).
2. Stir butter into hot milk mixture.
3. In a separate bowl, combine eggs, vanilla, sugar and salt.
4. Whisk hot milk mixture into egg mixture.
5. Grease a 9 x 14, 2-inch deep casserole, and fill with cake cubes.
6. Pour custard mixture over cake cubes, making sure all cake is coated with custard mixture.
7. Sprinkle cinnamon and nutmeg on top.
8. Place pan in a water bath (a larger pan filled half-way with boiling water, so the hot water comes half-way up the side of the bread pudding pan).
9. Bake at 350 degrees for 35-45 minutes or until eggs set and a knife inserted into center of pan comes out clean.
• 1 cup salted butter
• 1 cup confectioner's sugar
• 1 egg
• Dash nutmeg
• 2 tablespoons bourbon
1. Melt butter in a small cast iron skillet. Add sugar and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until glossy. Remove from heat and quickly whisk in egg, then stir in bourbon. Pour over warm bread pudding.
2. (No time to bake your own? Rhoden makes bread pudding to order: $18 for a tray that serves 15 and $10 for a pint of Bourbon sauce. Call 505-4822 to order.)
Poor Man's Bread Pudding
(from The Carolina Housewife, first printed in 1847)
Pour boiling water over half a loaf of stale bread, and covering it up closely, let it remain until thoroughly soaked; then squeeze it in a towel until half the water is out; put it in a bowl, and sweeten with brown sugar to the taste; add, while hot, a large tablespoonful of butter; flavor with grated nutmeg, a spoonful of brandy, ditto of rose-water; add some stoned raisins. It should be put in a well-buttered baking dish about an inch deep, and should bake four hours in a slow oven.
Anne Fitten Glenn can be reached at email@example.com.